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Bandits, LumberKings prepare for the future
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Bandits, LumberKings prepare for the future

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As the owner of four minor-league baseball teams, Quad Cities River Bandits owner Dave Heller finds himself dealing with a flood that has nothing to with the river that runs past the outfield wall at Modern Woodmen Park.

A flood of emotions about the now-canceled 2020 season encompasses Heller’s thoughts these days.

There’s frustration.

There’s finances.

And then, there’s the fans.

"That’s the most difficult part of it all. The great thing about owning the River Bandits is being at the ballpark in Davenport, greeting everybody at the top of the steps when fans come in and then saying ‘Thanks’ and ‘Good night’ when they leave," Heller said.

"The people who are at every game and I get a chance to talk with every day, they’re like family and I miss it. I miss seeing them every day."

By the time Minor League Baseball announced late Tuesday afternoon that there would be no season for its 160 teams after being informed by Major League Baseball that it could not provide players for the current season, Heller understood that would likely be the case.

Minor-league players were sent home in mid-March because of concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic and as the majors struggled to craft their own comeback plan from the coronavirus situation, minor-league organizations found themselves on the backburner.

As Clinton LumberKings general manager Ted Tornow put it, "We knew when the players were sent home from spring training that the odds of playing a full schedule were slim."

The odds became smaller with the passage of time, and eventually last week, time ran out.

The 70-game home schedules that Midwest League staff members in the Quad-Cities and Clinton had prepared for since last fall were wiped away.

"We tell our fans that we are just as frustrated and mad about this season as they are because that is the reality," Tornow said.

"A lot goes into a season. I’m disappointed for my staff and all of our employees. For the folks who work here part-time, and we have some who have been here forever, I feel for them. They’re hurting right now. We all are."

The situation is particularly frustrating for Heller, whose River Bandits were counting on 2020 to be a bounce-back year after having 17 home games canceled in 2019 because of Mississippi River flooding and flood-related issues surrounding Modern Woodmen Park.

"Our staff did a terrific job in the offseason. Everything was falling in place for 2020 to be a great year, until COVID hit," Heller said. "That changed everything."

Pat O’Conner, the president and CEO of Minor League Baseball, said during a video conference Tuesday evening that the fallout from this season’s cancellation will impact his organization’s clubs well into the future.

"I could see the impact lingering into 2022, 2023 easily. In some cases, possibly a little longer," O’Conner said.

Unlike many small businesses, the business of minor-league baseball is largely seasonal, and with no games in 2020 most teams are figuring out how to operate with a major loss of revenue over an extended period of time.

"Going 19 months without any revenue coming in, for any business that’s brutal," Heller said.

When adding in the loss of seasons for a full-season team in Wilmington, Del., and short-season clubs in Lowell, Mass., and Billings, Mont., also owned by Heller, the numbers add up quickly.

"It’s not something you plan for," Heller said.

Heller and Tornow and their staffs are working to bring as many events as possible to otherwise empty ballparks.

In addition to a baseball field, the River Bandits have suite-level areas to market in and out of season, and the LumberKings will continue to host a summertime concert series and other events at NelsonCorp Field.

"Every little thing helps," Tornow said.

And beyond 2020, challenges exist for all minor-league teams.

The current Professional Baseball Agreement, the contract which binds major- and minor-league baseball, expires at the end of the current season.

Even before the coronavirus became an issue, talks between the two parties had been limited, and on Tuesday, O’Conner conceded "discussions are at a standstill."

He estimated it had been six weeks since there talks of any substance between the two groups, a situation impacted by the back and forth of negotiations between Major League Baseball and its players union centered on creating a shortened 2020 big-league season.

"They have a pretty meaty issue on their plate and I understand that," O’Conner said. "Our negotiating team is not forcing the issue."

That comes at a time when Major League Baseball has threatened to reduce the number of its affiliations with minor-league clubs from 160 to 120 beginning in 2021. Minor League Baseball has countered by proposing to keep all 160 teams in operation.

Midwest League teams are among those potentially impacted by those cuts.

Franchises in Clinton and Burlington operate in the smallest two full-season markets in professional baseball and have appeared on reported lists of teams under consideration for contraction.

Quad-Cities has been both on and off lists of potential cuts as well, although Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley has said he has been reassured by Dan Halem, the deputy commissioner of Major League Baseball, that the River Bandits as well as minor-league franchises in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines will return in 2021.

Heller echoed that last week.

"Affiliated baseball will remain in the Quad-Cities next season and beyond," Heller said. "There is no doubt in my mind about that."

Recalling that there was talk of contraction that never transpired when the last major overhaul of the Professional Baseball Agreement was crafted in 1990 in negotiations, Tornow said the LumberKings will continue to operate as usual.

"We haven’t been told we’re out," Tornow said. "We’re on a list, but that’s not new. There’s been a list out there since October. In 1990, the negotiations weren’t completed until January or February. This is a time to be patient and be prepared."

Clinton is the only remaining charter member of the Midwest League, a franchise that dates to 1954, and Tornow said the LumberKings want to remain in the league.

If that does not happen, Tornow said the community-owned team will be ready to consider its options for the future.

"We operate in a baseball stadium. It’s what we do. This isn’t a soccer pitch. It’s a baseball stadium and we fully expect baseball to be played here in 2021," Tornow said.

Heller, whose two short-season clubs have also been listed as potential contraction candidates, looks forward to doing the same in the Quad-Cities.

"With all of the promotions and giveaways that we’ve had to push back a year and with the ones we’re contractually obligated to do next year, expect 2021 to be the biggest year ever at Modern Woodmen Park," Heller said. "We’re looking forward to that, getting a chance to welcome the fans back."

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